The heroine of Jane Smiley's latest novel, Private Life, lives with her husband at the naval shipyard on Mare Island, north of San Francisco. There, while in bed one evening in 1906, she feels the earth move — and it has nothing to do with her husband. A lamp falls off the bedside table — just minor damage. But, over on the mainland, all hell breaks loose as San Francisco collapses in the Great Earthquake and subsequent fire. Margaret Mayfield Early is a quiet woman who keeps her own counsel, a watcher rather than an actor in history's great dramas. It's appropriate that she lives in an insular place like an island, where she can hear of catastrophes taking place across the water but is only glancingly affected by them herself. The years roll on, and other events transpire: sailors leave Mare Island for service in World Wars I and II, and the Spanish flu epidemic and the Great Depression hit. Margaret lives, at a remove, through them all — until one day she quietly realizes that the man she has spent most of her life married to is, at best, a fool; this time, the epicenter of the earthquake is in her brain.
Private Life is a powerful turn-of-the-last-century American novel in both chronology and style. It spans the decades from Margaret's childhood in Missouri after the Civil War up to the early years of World War II. Smiley has tried her hand at historical novels before (as well as an academic farce and even a suspense tale), but, at bottom, she has always been a master chronicler of the climate changes in relationships — I think especially of her great, great novella, The Age of Grief.
Here, her compelling story about a long marriage has an Edith Wharton, Henry James feel of sinister delicacy about it. Margaret is afflicted by the same strain of paralysis that defines Newland Archer in Wharton's Age of Innocence. In the opening section of the novel, shrewd older women around Margaret conspire to orchestrate her marriage — at the desperately ripe old age of 27 — to Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a Navy astronomer in his 30s and the most famous man that their little Midwestern town has ever produced. Describing their courtship, Smiley's deadpan omniscient narrator says that Margaret felt "pleasing dread" at Capt. Early's approach, and their wedding was "quickly accomplished." What layers of meaning are freeze-dried into those compact phrases! By the time Margaret understands both the betrayals she has been subjected to and the true character of her husband, her feeble spirit of defiance has all but calcified.
Margaret and Andrew move to Mare Island immediately after the wedding because he's put in charge of the observatory there. Andrew has made a tentative reputation for himself with his theories about double stars. Soon he's filling up their small house with dusty piles of scientific journals, churning out boulder-sized books with titles like The Universe Explained, and engaging in one-sided debates with his nemesis, Albert Einstein. Reflecting on one of his manuscripts (which, of course, she has been expected to type) Margaret thinks: "What Andrew's theory was, precisely she could not herself have said, though she partially understood the second half of the second volume, which was that if they could harness the power of the Aether, they would be as gods ... [H]aving been left to think and think and think, Andrew had made up his mind that thinking was everything."
Over the decades, Margaret, like a lot of women, carves out a small, separate life for herself without explicitly recognizing this as marital survival strategy. She befriends a Russian emigre, and a Nelly Bly-type female journalist, and a Japanese-American family. At 60, our narrator tells us, Margaret had gotten into the habit of congratulating herself for being "balanced." "But, she saw, she was balanced on a very narrow perch."
Private Life is a wistful and beautifully observed novel about nice girls finishing last. Margaret always listened to her practical mother who opined that: "Romance ... was always the first act of a tragedy." But, as Smiley makes clear, relationships that don't have their roots in passion are capable of their own peculiar devastations of spirit.